Money (That IS What I Want)


“The best things in life are free

But you can give them to the bird and bees

I need money (that’s what I want)”


So sings Barrett Strong in his massive hit “Money (That’s What I Want),” which has been covered more than twenty times. Strong was one of the pioneers of Motown Records, and this song was his biggest success. He also wrote “Heard It Through The Grapevine,” a song that has been covered many times as well. [Ed. Note—Imagine crushing it so hard that the second-best-known song you wrote is “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.”]

Isn’t it interesting that a song about money and our constant quest for it has been covered by so many artists? What does that say about us in the end? I do not believe that Strong was a money-hungry songwriter who was swimming in cash after his hit. The songwriting industry, especially around the time of this song’s release, had a reputation for swindling artists out of their royalties. Record labels often defrauded their artists, taking home hundreds of thousands of dollars and eventually millions leaving the artists scrambling for the loose change. As you’ve probably surmised, this also happened to Barrett Strong. His name was unjustly removed from the song’s copyright, and he did not receive royalties for any of the numerous covers of his song. Sadly, Strong passed away on January 28, 2023, swindled out of millions owed to his family. The Sex Pistols may have written “The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle” about tricking the record labels into paying them for records they never produced, but the real swindle occurred all too frequently in the other direction. Artists were all too often cheated, tricked, conned and duped out of their royalties for their creative work that has provided the soundtrack for our lives.

Today I will rank and compare a few versions of Strong’s “Money” and see how they compare to the original. Before that, it is necessary to define what makes a good cover of a song. To me, a good cover needs to provide a new spin on the tune and add the new artist’s style to it, while respecting the original song rather than simply copying it. (We’re looking at you, Weezer.)

Starting at the beginning (which is a very good place to start) with the original, I have to acknowledge the genius of Barrett Strong for the chord progression and songwriting. It uses a classic i-V-IV progression, which is standard for lots of music. Still, the rhythm Strong devised makes it a real technical job for a pianist or a guitar player. The song itself is an excellent example of Motown blues, but it lends itself to being covered in any genre and thus allows us to take a trip through the history of rock and roll by examining this song’s history—and, maybe, it also puts on display the frustrations songwriters had when dealing with their record labels.

#1: The Beatles (listen)

I have to admit that I am not the biggest Beatles fan, and my opinion is not changed by their cover. If you consider yourself a rock and roll band, you really need to go for it when you cover somebody else’s song. Although their singer, John Lennon, sings with a raspy voice for this recording, that does not constitute or make up for the absence of an original take. The Beatles version borders on the typical “greeting card” sound found in their early hits, suggesting they didn’t understand the song in the first place. Sure, they performed a popular version, but they lost the “vibe” of Strong’s creation. Something similar happens in the Jackson 5’s cover of The Temptations’ “(I Know) I’m Losing You.” The song is about heartbreak, and David Ruffian of The Temptations sounds like he has been through heartbreak. His voice drags on, as his life does when he sees he is losing his love. The Jackson 5 version, although one of my favorites, is upbeat and up-tempo, and the young Michael Jackson sings it well, if not cheerfully. Still, it is apparent to the listener that Michael Jackson does not yet know heartbreak.

#2: The Rolling Stones (listen)

This version starkly contrasts with the Beatles’ version. Here, the Stones really go for it—they make the song their own and do a good job making us think they need money. (They, too, were often involved with money disputes with record labels.) This version is often too grungy for most people, as they prefer the more polished sound of the Beatles. I think this is possibly the best version out there. The mixing is wonderful. If Phil Spector created the “wall of sound,” the Stones perfected the graffiti-covered, water-stained, decaying industrial wall of sound. The daring duo of Keith Richards and Brian Jones weave their guitars in a roughhewed quilt of rhythm and blues, while Mick Jagger’s harmonica wails the painful sounds of poverty.

#3: The Doors (listen)

The Doors are a perplexing band as well as a polarizing one. Most of their music sounds like spoken poetry penned by Jim Morrison, then set to music . . . but once in a while, they blow you out of the water with one of their hits like “Break on Through to the Other Side.” Still, their version of “Money” is not my favorite, but I do admire how it starts very soft and builds through the whole song. It is not a widely-known version, but I think the Doors do Barrett Strong’s creation justice.

#4: The Kingsmen (listen)

Many people do not know the band [Ed. Note—and if you don’t, that’s on you, because these are the guys behind the most famous “Louie Louie”], but we may have our winner here. Their style is very 50s R&B, and they are not shy with any aspect of their cover; they really go for it. The Kingsmen are not afraid to make this song their own, and it shows. Their version is very similar to The Rolling Stones, but there is something special about their cover. Perhaps the Kingsmen’s brand of rhythm and blues reflects America’s optimism, while the Stones are moved by the decaying English empire. Whether it is better than the original, though, that’s for you to decide.

#5: The Flying Lizards (listen)

I am really only including this one for my own amusement. This version strays far from the original into a slightly more “modern” sound. The Flying Lizards use looped typewriters for the pounding percussion of their song, with a Casio organ serving as a major instrument throughout. The lead singer’s deadpan Eastern European nihilism comes through in her bored, stilted rendition of Strong’s lyrics, which is pretty funny because she’s British. One wonders if she even cares about money. You can tell this band had the most fun putting it together just by listening to it. It’s not the best version on this list by any means, but I had to include it.



Barrett Strong’s “Money (That’s What I Want)” has stood the test of time, and it is (in my opinion) one of the fifty best songs ever written. This song almost became a rite of passage for bands to cover during the 1960s. If there was a garage band in the neighborhood, you could hear Strong’s distinctive opening riff over the sounds of lawnmowers and hedge clippers.

Of course, there are many more versions of this song from many other bands than I could list, but these are my favorites. I now leave this challenge to the reader: can you find a better version? Do you agree with my assessment of the song? Is it in the top fifty greatest songs of all time?